Let's face it: We're all hurting. Food prices have risen across the board by more than 5 percent over the last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a May 2008 report — milk hikes (13 percent) are rivaling those of gasoline, and cheese and eggs are up 12 and 30 percent respectively. Even cereals and baked goods have risen 8.9 percent since last year. The result? Most of us are looking for ways to stretch our food budget.
Hope is at hand. While no one's expecting prices to drop in the near future, there are many easy ways to trim food expenses without feeling the pinch or sacrificing on flavor. Take a tip from us when planning your weekly food budget: We will tell you how to shop and cook smart, so that you can continue to enjoy delicious — but inexpensive — meals. Here are 35 simple ways to eat well with less.
1. Do research online first
Before you plan your shopping, check your store's Web site to see what the week's specials are, if there are any coupons, and what items are seasonal and abundant, and thus good value. Compare prices between different supermarkets in your area.
2. Plan ahead Decide what your weekly meals will be in advance so that you can use leftovers from one dinner in the following day's lunch or dinner. (Our Dinner Rush menu planner can help!) Before shopping, check that you have all the necessary staples (flour, sugar, etc.), and jot down anything else you need for the week. Try making up an easy spreadsheet for a shopping list and food budget, then simply update it each time you head to the store.
3. Eat before you shop
When you're hungry, everything looks good!
When you're distracted by children or friends, you tend to make impulse purchases or don't take time to compare prices.
5. Wear blinders Only walk down aisles with items you need so you won't be tempted to stray from your list.
6. Seek out local produce Try to buy mostly local fruits and veggies that are in season — it's better for the earth and oftentimes cheaper. Farmers market vendors may also have end-of-day sales.
7. Ask for deli products to be sliced thin Does your family load up on cold cuts? Thin meats and cheeses can go further.
8. Avoid eye-level products Supermarkets usually place more expensive items right in front of you. Do a little stretching and bending to find bargains.
9. Buy generic Many store-brand staples taste the same as brand-name products, so choosing the store's label is an easy way to save. Experiment with the store's cereals, coffee, veggies — your family may not even notice the difference.
10. Compare unit prices Unless you're a math whiz, it's impossible to compare prices and values across different sizes. The unit price makes it easy. (And you may find that sometimes the bigger package is not the best bargain.)
11. Check the sale rack If the supermarket has too many items near their expiration date, they slash prices to make sure they move. Examine discounted produce and meats carefully, and freeze any you can't eat soon.
12. Use coupons While this can save cash, you may still be better off buying the generic version rather than the higher-priced brand. It's work, but if you watch for store coupons as well as the ones in the newspaper, you can do well — and some stores double coupons. Just make sure you only clip coupons for products you actually need.
13. Apply for a store card This gives you extra savings on sale items and means you don't need to clip coupons. Some stores give you purchase points to use toward a turkey at Thanksgiving or other rewards.
14. Shop with cash Some strict budgeters advocate only taking cash to the store so you keep better track of your purchases and reject extras. Using a debit card is another option.
15. Bring your own bag(s) Some stores give a discount for each bag you bring — and you're saving the planet as well as your own green.
DIY budget-stretching tips
1. Do your own prep
While it's tempting to buy those prepared fruit salads, precut vegetables and precleaned greens, you can save a lot by doing a little bit of the work. Same goes for cheese: Buy a chunk and slice or grate it yourself.2. Invest in a freezer This lets you buy meats and vegetables in bulk or on sale, divide them into smaller serving sizes, and store safely for later use. It also helps you avoid expensive last-minute dinner purchases because you have nothing in the house. Frozen veggies and fruits come in handy for quick stir-fries or desserts.
3. Make your own cold cuts One of our biggest purchases at the supermarket is convenience. Sometimes it's worth buying time, but often you'll eat better — and definitely less expensively — if you get creative. If you see ham or turkey breast on sale, it may be worth roasting it and slicing for sandwiches. Too much meat? Freeze extra slices for later.
4. Mix up drinks Brew your own tea and ice it, or mix seltzer with fruit juice for a light and refreshing spritzer. If you use milk only for your coffee or tea, a slightly weaker flavor milk won't be obvious — so stretch your milk dollar with a mixture of the powdered variety enhanced with the real thing from its carton cousin.
5. Try your hand at canning When produce is in peak season and you have a glut (and prices are typically at their lowest), stock up and preserve them. It's inexpensive, convenient, and a great way to enjoy tasty fruits and veggies throughout the year.
6. Bring lunch Cook up batches of pasta, quinoa, stir-fry vegetables and the like so you have a few days' worth of lunches to microwave at work. If you're not that organized, at least throw together a sandwich and snack or fruit instead of buying a much more expensive version.
7. Waste not Overripe bananas can be frozen and used later for banana bread or smoothies. If you roast a chicken, save the bones and make your own homemade stock. Stems from parsley and basil are great for flavoring soups and stocks. Keep the rind from Parmesan and other hard cheeses and use to flavor soups. Stale bread can be used for bread crumbs or meatball filling.
8. Freeze properly Label freezer packs with contents and date. Invest in containers or special freezer bags —you're not saving money if your food gets freezer burn and has to be tossed out. Squeeze as much air as possible out of freezer bags before sealing.
9. Grow food You don't need a big yard — even window boxes or planters will work for herbs and some veggies.
10. Compost Save landfill space and also make your own nutrient-filled soil for growing those veggies.
1. Cook batches If you have time over the weekend, make large quantities of your favorite dinners. Set aside enough to serve the next night, and freeze additional batches for days when dinner's a rush. (Freeze promptly so teenagers don't polish off the extras …) Lasagna and chili are easy to make and freeze.
2. Go meatless a few days a week You won't miss meat in these tasty vegetarian meals: Rice and wheat berry pilaf with baby spinach, Papardelle with bean bolognese sauce, and Angel-hair pasta with fresh tomato sauce. Plus, you'll save money and reap health benefits, too.
3. If you do buy meat …
Buy the tougher cuts, which are less expensive, and stew, roast or marinate to tenderize and add more flavor. Slow cookers make deliciously rich and tender pork-shoulder and beef-chuck dishes. Also, try grilling skirt steak or flank steak this summer — cut the meat against the grain and serve with a zesty sauce or salsa.
4. Use whole grains While brown rice and quinoa are delicious and nutritious in their own right; you can also use them as fillers in soups and stews. A handful of brown rice will stretch a pot of Vegetable sausage soup. Adding extra cooking broth and some quinoa to Moroccan slow-cooked lamb stew will make for a hearty dinner with enough leftovers for lunch or dinner the next day.
5. Buy beans Dried or canned legumes like white beans, chickpeas, and lentils are an inexpensive way to add protein to your diet. You can use them to make a tasty pot of chili go farther, or you can make a salad topping by combining white beans with some extra-virgin olive oil, chopped garlic, and crushed red pepper. Other delicious recipes for beans include cauliflower, white bean, and feta salad, Tuscan beans, and tagliatelle with fava beans and pecorino romano.
6. Make a pot of soup Easy, nutritious, filling, and inexpensive, soup is the ultimate money-stretcher. Throw in leftover veggies or protein, homemade stock, pasta or rice, and lentils or beans. Heat yourself up in winter with a hearty lentil soup, or chill with an icy gazpacho in the dog days of summer. Add a side of crusty whole-wheat bread, and it's a meal.
7. Boost salad A simple salad dressed up with easy additions such as cold roast chicken, shrimp, ham, or chunks of tuna can be an entrée rather than a side. Chicken-walnut salad with potato salad, tomatoes, and kalamata olives is delicious, and so is this unusual couscous and shrimp salad with tangerines and almonds.
8. Experiment with herbs
Fresh herbs add a flavor boost to any dish. If you find you have extras, whip up a quick sauce or pesto for use later in the week. Parsley oregano sauce can be served over roasted meat, fish, or rice, and you can experiment with a classic pesto to brighten up pastas, soups, and even sandwiches. If you prefer to freeze your herbs for later use, finely chop them, place them in an ice cube tray, cover with oil, and then plastic wrap and freeze. When frozen, pop out the cubes and place them in a freezer bag for easy storage. Next time you need herbs for soups, pastas, sauces, or other preparations, just add a cube to your recipe.
9. Make your own snacks You can reduce your food bill by reducing your snacking. Packaged snacks are expensive, often loaded with sugar and fat, and full of chemicals you can't even pronounce. If you're a compulsive snacker, switch to homemade treats such as homemade party mix. Another good choice? Ginger-garlic hummus is a dip-with-a-kick for dunking baby carrots or pepper slices.
10. Employ leftovers quickly
Don't push leftovers to the no-man's-land at the back of the fridge. Make sure you use them promptly, either for lunch or another dinner. Turn leftover roast chicken into chicken enchiladas, a small piece of steak into hearty steak salad sandwiches, and day-old rice and vegetables into a quick and delicious stir-fry.